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Differing versions of Donald MacMillan’s field diary brought to light

Written on August 1, 2014

Dr. David Welky, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, who is working on a book on Donald MacMillan’s Crocker Land Expedition of 1913-17, recently brought to my attention that there is a different and apparently earlier version of MacMillan’s 1914 field diary in New York.

It differs from that now in the collection of the library at Bowdoin College that I relied upon in Cook and Peary, the Polar Controversy, Resolved, in which I noted that this diary was significantly different from the published account of MacMillan’s 1914 journey toward Crocker Land contained in his published narrative, Four Years in the White North. Dr. Welky sent me the entries covering this journey away from Cape Thomas Hubbard toward the supposed location of Crocker Land covering April 15-23, 1914. The source of these entries was the collection of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), under whose auspices the expedition was undertaken.

He no doubt was obligated to turn over journals as part of his record to the museum as a condition of their sponsorship. The thought occurred to me that he might have wanted to keep the originals for purposes of writing his book, and that he may have decided in copying a “set” for AMNH decided to edit out some of the detail of the original, both to shorten his task and also to remove some language or statements that he thought the better of. For instance, he took out “d – - – - -” at one point. My first quick look at Dr. Welky’s material gave me this idea because of several physical details of the AMNH diary and specific passages that differed between the two manuscript diaries. The fact that MacMillan erased and changed some mileages in the Bowdoin diary and left them alone in AMNH’s didn’t even dissuade this thought. AMNH could have been copied before he got down to recomputing his positions in preparation for his book, which his associate Fitzhugh Green, who accompanied MacMillan in 1914, says they did upon their return. Green’s article, Arctic Duty (p. 2473), sheds some light on the mileage changes:

“Immediately after our return I checked up my meridian marks by a long series of observations. After the chronometers were corrected final reworkings gave us very exact positions for our Polar Sea sights. To our satisfaction astronomical data placed the farthest camp at 82 30′ north and 108 22.5′ west, or a little beyond our conservative dead reckoning.”
And when he got down to writing his book, MacMillan made even further changes. On this theory, the AMNH version had already gone to them, so he couldn’t make any amendments to it. However, from information Dr. Welky sent later, these original thoughts now seem to me far less likely, if not ruled out entirely.

Here is an analysis of various points I noticed that might help decide which of MacMillan’s diaries was written first and perhaps indicate if there was even an earlier version that is neither at Bowdoin or AMNH version.

1. THE TYPE OF NOTEBOOK. The size of the AMNH book favors it as the original. However, the type of notebook does not. Explorers tended to use notebooks that had pre-numbered pages. And using a set of what appear to be small ledger books (about 6 x 4) seems odd. However, the Bowdoin books, though numbered, are larger (about 8 ½ x 11) than anyone would want to drag on an extended polar trip both in overall size and thickness. And both books are also just too neat to have been done in typical arctic conditions of the time, an objection that applies to Peary’s as well, but not to Cook’s. A combination of all of these objections suggests that there may have been an even earlier field diary. Also, Peary invariably wrote his daily entries on only one page of a pair. This was quite common amongst explorers, the opposite page being used for notes, etc. MacMillan having been with Peary in 1909 would reasonably be expected to follow his mentor’s methods (he used exactly the same kind of cumbersome “Peary sledge” on the Crocker Land Expedition, for instance), also suggesting there was an earlier diary. These factors do not, however, suggest if one or the other manuscript diaries is a copy, an expansion, or a contraction of an earlier text.

2. STYLE AND CONTENT OF ENTRIES. This, too, could go either way. In the Bowdoin diary there is more detailed information, generally. This might be a later expansion of the AMNH text, or the AMNH might be an editing down of the Bowdoin text. To weigh these possibilities, let’s consider the general differences first.
In the Bowdoin text MacMillan uses the Inuits’ names in full almost always. In the AMNH he uses an initial or “the boys” or some such description in many cases. In the AMNH he also, for the most part, does not name any dogs, though he identifies the ones he is talking about specifically in the Bowdoin. The AMNH is also generally more concise in its description of events. Again, this could be interpreted either way. In my work with Dr. Cook’s diaries, I always found his original diaries stuffed with specific and trivial detail he did not necessarily include in his subsequent drafts or finished narratives, either in manuscript or published.

3. SOME SPECIFIC DIFFERENCES. There are lots of these, but let’s just look at a few consecutive entries and ask ourselves why these may be so different.

Tuesday April 21.
The body of the entry is the same until the last common sentence of the first paragraph:

AMNH says: “Clear tonight but – nothing in sight – yet.” [end of paragraph]
Bowdoin says: “Clear tonight but nothing in sight on horizon. [adding] This disappearance of mist on the ice is an indication that all leads are frozen.”

AMNH concludes this entry with a paragraph on the dogs’ condition and how long he needs to travel before being “through.” Bowdoin has a long description of how Green said he saw Crocker Land and “sure enough” Mac gives a description of “a tremendous land.” After it disappears, he specifically excuses Peary’s citing of Crocker Land as due to mirage. But in AMNH, by saying “yet” and citing the time before he will be “through,” he is anticipating a possible sighting before that time comes. This is a very significant difference. In the first he sees nothing at all; in the second they both see “Crocker Land” but it disappears and provides a detailed excuse for Peary’s citing of “the northernmost land” ever seen, even though it does not exist.

Wednesday April 22
AMNH starts out with the statement about the good weather, then discusses the condition of the dogs. Then it says: “Saw land this morning but think now it was mirage of ice. Nothing in sight.” In the Bowdoin diary, however, he and Green have already seen the mirage the day before and excused Peary. This entry says they decided to take a Meridian Altitude and built an igloo to do so, the Inuit going on ahead while they took sights, and has all kinds of trivial detail about how the Inuit did not go on as far as expected, how they can’t tell time by anything but the hour hand, and how they stopped because they wanted to dry out their kamiks and stockings. It goes on to say that Peeahwato said he was going back, and how Mac insisted he wasn’t.
In this case, based on my reading of a number of other diaries, the detail is usually present in the original. Things like this get written down on the spot and not remembered later, though of course they could later be just made up whole, after the fact, or placed in a specific entry by general recollection if they actually did occur at some time during the journey, as Dr. Cook often did.

Thursday April 23
Here AMNH directly contradicts the entry for the previous day in Bowdoin by saying that the location was determined by “sights at noon today and yesterday morning”; a Meridian Altitude, by definition, must be done at noon, not in the morning, and this entry says the Meridian Altitude was taken April 23, and that the one on April 22 was made in the morning.
Most remarkable is AMNH’s statement: “A great feeling of relief tonight. My dream of 5 years is off,” whereas Bowdoin says nothing about “relief,” but indicates disappointment, if anything, that “my dream (of reaching Crocker Land) of 5 years is over.” Additionally, in neither version is there ever a “tense lapse” putting the narrative out of the present tense or just-past tense. That is not easy to do in a rewrite or write-over—just ask Dr. Cook!

So, it appears an argument could be made for either account being the original. It is difficult to imagine recalling and adding the amount of specific detail that Bowdoin does, unless it is just made up. However, I recall a quote from an associate about MacMillan to the effect that if one knew him, nothing would surprise you, so perhaps this is the case, or the new details were written in generally after-the-fact from memory. Or, perhaps if AMNH is a copy to fulfill the obligation mentioned above, the details were left out, which for the most part would not detract from it as a “report to sponsors,” that is the reason for the differences, which for the most part do not change the time schedule of the sledge trip or most of the stated or implicit observations they both contain, except for the distinct citing of the mirage of Crocker Land, which is used to excuse Peary’s erroneous or false report.
This most problematic passage is that of Green shouting he sees Crocker Land, Mac’s confirmation, and the discussion of mirage as an excuse for Peary strikes me as a concoction to explain away Peary’s “mistaken” sighting. If it were true, then Mac surely would have included it in the AMNH version if it is a condensation, or written it there originally, if AMNH is the earlier account instead of first, instead of saying there was nothing in sight and then just giving an off-hand account of mirage without mentioning Peary at all. After all, AMNH was intimately mixed up with Peary, and they would want some vindication of him in light of his acolyte bringing home a negative report on one of his greatest “discoveries.” But in the AMNH, there is only the matter-of-fact mention of being deceived by mirage on April 22. Reinforcing the notion that the additions regarding the sighting of the mirage of Crocker Land were made to excuse Peary is a later passage in the Bowdoin diary in which MacMillan claims to have seen a very convincing mirage of distant land from the exact position Peary claims to have “discovered” Crocker Land. Again, this passage is absent from the AMNH version.

On this, and the ambiguity of the rest of the indications, I came to the conclusion that the AMNH was indeed written before the Bowdoin version. This was all but confirmed when Dr. Welky told he that there were many of these small ledger books used by various members of the expedition at AMNH and sent me an image of the cover of an identical notebook that had belonged to MacMillan’s physician, Dr. Hunt. It was impressed on the cover “American Museum of Natural History Crocker Land Expedition. Field notebook 70.” Undoubtedly, then, these were the books issued by the museum itself for the purposes stated on the cover, which had even been pre-numbered on their covers for future organization and inventory.
Finally, as mentioned, MacMillan’s finished book is certainly much closer to the Bowdoin, justifying Dr. Welky’s view of it as a draft for the book. However, as I noted in C&P, there are significant factual differences between those two, even so.
Still, an analyst could go on and on, but I doubt any argument could be completely conclusive as to whether there was an early version of the AMNH version, written in another identical book. The handwriting is so neat and even that it suggests the existing AMNH must be a recopy, but this can’t be proven. However, certainly, the differences between the two known versions are significant, and, at best, cast some doubt on MacMillan’s complete truthfulness and the reliability of his journals as absolutely factual reports, though, as stated above, the basic information they contain is consistent.

After receiving this material from Dr. Welky, I considered whether I should modify my analysis and comparison of Cook’s and MacMillan’s very similar journeys toward the location of the non-existent Crocker Land in The Lost Notebook of Dr. Frederick A. Cook, Pages 328-332. In the end, however, I am inclined to just accept the Bowdoin version as an expanded and corrected version of whatever the original sources were, and for the purposes of comparison of the two journeys, as the best of the three versions to use. I therefore do not contemplate making a revision to the book as it stands, though the reader should keep in mind that the AMNH version exists, though I do not believe it significantly changes the comparisons I made in my analysis. Should further information make me rethink this position, I will post any amendments to the current text on the NEWS section of this website.

My thanks to Dr. Welky for bringing this important material to my attention.

Donald MacMillan

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